Are We Ready to Admit? A Plea on Behalf of Our Children

I have lived in Bergen County for much of the past 35 years and have had the personal privilege of witnessing my beloved community flourish and grow.  Our community’s incredible growth has enabled the transformational development of our social and religious infrastructure.

One of our community’s greatest achievements is the founding and continued growth of our many academic institutions; each of them – without exception – reputable and renowned. I am genuinely proud that our local yeshivot represent a wide spectrum of institutional styles, educational philosophies, and religious hashkafot.  That our community is blessed with such a wide variety of educational options, both on elementary and high school levels, is not to be taken for granted and serves as a model for other communities.

There is one particular feature that sets our community apart from other communities of similar size and composition. Currently, there is no Bergen County yeshiva which follows a ‘K-12’ model.  Thus, upon graduating from eighth grade, our local students continue their education by selecting and then entering a new institutional setting. This model presents our community with a unique set of opportunities and challenges.

Without a K-12 model, high schools are compelled to actively engage in student recruitment, which has created an exceptionally intense competitive environment.  All of our local yeshiva high schools, in addition to high schools located outside of Bergen County, invest substantial resources to attract, engage, and recruit students.  It must be noted that our school leaders, despite the institutional competition, frequently collaborate and coordinate, often serving the community collectively, rather than individually.

The yeshiva high school application and admissions process is multifaceted and complex.  It is therefore quite remarkable that historically well over 90% of Bergen County children are accepted to at least one of their first schools of choice. (Given the limited capacity of any given school, eighth graders are expected to apply to at least two separate schools and, at times, students are strongly advised to apply to at least three schools.)

Each and every year, on a pre-specified date in the middle of February (this year February 12), high schools inform all of their applicants if they have been accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.  In recent years, many local eighth graders are accepted to more than one school, some are accepted to only one school, and a small, but not insignificant, number of children are informed that they have not been accepted into any yeshiva.  Ultimately, virtually all of these children gain admittance, but only at the conclusion of a grueling process that can take many weeks, if not months. The emotional impact of feeling rejected by one’s community, even if only temporarily, can be devastating.  I have witnessed firsthand the extraordinary pain experienced by these children and their families, all of whom feel marginalized, isolated, and helpless. There are of course situations where children have special learning or behavioral needs which cannot be accommodated in one of our mainstream yeshiva settings.  Such cases are not the subject of my remarks. My focus at this time is to address what has repeatedly occurred to students whose educational and behavioral needs can certainly be met within our yeshiva system, but do not gain admittance to any school, until the time that their peers have finalized their own decisions.      

It goes without saying that each of our schools must strive to achieve excellence on every level; academic, religious, and social.  In doing so, schools must work diligently to assemble a student body that will facilitate the successful achievement of their unique institutional goals.  Understandably, this level of success can only be achieved by establishing a quantitative and qualitative balance in the classrooms and hallways. With over 20 years of professional classroom experience, I can personally attest to the impact that even one student can have on many others.  This phenomenon is neither imagined nor exaggerated. Be that as it may, we must confront the following reality: for the past several years, 2-3% of the graduating eighth graders of Bergen County face rejection and uncertainty, with the knowledge that over 97% of their peers have been accepted to yeshiva.  

To be clear, I have no doubt that our school leaders act with the purest of intentions and face extraordinary challenges, as they earnestly strive to preserve and promote the success and integrity of the schools that they lead.  Furthermore, there are numerous complexities and systemic realities which have made it exceedingly challenging to fully resolve this issue in the past.

These challenges notwithstanding, I issue this public appeal on behalf of the children of our community who may otherwise suffer humiliation and pain.  Over the next several weeks, school leaders, together with their admission committees, will finalize their decisions as to how to process the applications that they have received.  As a community, we must commit at the outset to offer every one of our children the dignity of acceptance.  I therefore propose that until a placement is secured for every one of our children, all letters of acceptance be withheld from every Bergen County student.  I respect the right of our school leaders to build institutions of excellence and genuinely admire their sense of responsibility in doing so.  Collectively, however, we must do so in a manner which allows us, as a community, to simultaneously offer a space and a place for each and every one of our children.

Critics of my proposal will accuse me of presenting an oversimplification of this issue in public.  Some may argue that Bergen County does not yet offer an appropriate and suitable educational setting for each of our children; an argument that I personally believe has merit.  As I have already acknowledged, this issue is profoundly complex and solutions that will satisfy all parties will require an unprecedented level of communication and compromise, involving elementary, high school, and communal leadership. I firmly believe that as a community we are capable of achieving that goal. Until that time, however, let us please commit to sparing any child the extraordinary pain and anguish of rejection.  

 

                            

 

12 Replies to “Are We Ready to Admit? A Plea on Behalf of Our Children”

  1. Maybe the schools should entertain a “Match”-like program as do many graduate schools. This allows more highly recruited students to rank the schools of their choice and, if accepted, take a spot at said institution while leaving spots to other lower ranked institutions (for this individual) available to others still seeking admission.

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    1. In the past, different proposals have been suggested. This has been one of them. Perhaps at some point in time the community will consider moving in that direction. While it may solve some problems, critics will point out it will create others. No perfect solutions but need to figure something out.

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  2. Parents who are desperate enlist Rabbis in their cause which leads to arm twisting and resentment. It is sad that these students experience rejection. However in my experience such students can be identified 2 or 3 years earlier than February of 8th grade. THAT is the time to get to work supporting and strengthening academic AND social skills so that later acceptance should not be an issue.

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    1. I agree with you 100%. While I am certainly “guilty” of arm-twisting, local heads of school will (hopefully) admit that I have also backed off when a readmission is not appropriate or warranted.
      In terms of identifying and planning earlier in the process, I fully agree as well. In fact, this was one of the points that I was alluding to when I said, “solutions that will satisfy all parties will require an unprecedented level of communication and compromise, involving elementary, high school, and communal leadership.”

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  3. Rabbi Rothwachs: thank you for this important article. I completely agree and support you.

    However the missing piece is that Bergen county effectively has 5 elementary schools who serve the same mainstream population. Sinai serves a completely different population.

    There needs to be one school that is brave enough to offer more resources to the kids who need more support and stop spending on buildings when neshamas are falling through the cracks. If one school even tried to offer parity to what a public school could offer you would make a difference in many peoples lives. There needs to be a program that offers something more than gesher/inclusion but not the level of Sinai. Many parents would even be willing to pay for this.

    Instead you have schools just weeding out kids and families who feel completely rejected.

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  4. Parents bear some blame in the rejection process, I think. First of all, parents need to take an honest look at their children’s academic needs and social skill set. High school application time is a bit late for reality checks about organic needs that may not have been addressed by parents or heretofore blamed on the elementary schools.
    In addition, it would be most helpful if prospective parents did not pressure high schools to reject other children in order to prove to be worthy of accepting their superlative children. Halevai that parents should honestly research what is best for their children’s needs, vis a vis their own children, not other people’s.

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  5. I agree with much of what was written but why are we not looking at addressing the root cause. There needs to be more programming services to help kids. Or shall I make the conclusion that this community doesn’t care about certain demographics? It’s easy to feel bad and empathy for the “nebach” Down syndrome kid or MS kid. But heaven forbid we help college bound mainstream kids that need more behavior support? Where is the logic in that? These are the kids who aren’t getting into to high school. Why aren’t we focused on the real issue? Provide the right support and programming to be able to service these kids.

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  6. I agree with the posters below. The commentary Currently happening on Facebook in regards to this article is horrifying. Parents who have who are blessed to have children with zero issues have really no empathy for other families in this community. I know plenty of esteemed individuals in this community who were kicked out of school when they were younger or had problems and yet our successful and even high earners today. The fact that people think it’s ok not to have a Jewish school for these children is unconscionable. They just want to throw them out in the garbage!!

    I urge you Rabbi Rothwachs. There are many parents suffering and even more that are suffering in silence. We must address the root cause of the issue and provide the right resources to suppport all children. Not just those who are low functioning.

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    1. Anybody who thinks that just “getting a kid in to a high school” with his problems is a solution is doing no one a favor. The younger a student is when issues are addressed the more likely (s)he is to develop productively. Getting expelled from high school because you can’t cope is not a big builder of esteem.

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  7. I agree binyamin. But the current situation is there is no place in the community for these kids unless your lower functioning and can go to Sinai.

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    1. My point is that we only get excited about the issue when the die is already cast. i spent many years as an elementary school administrator pleading to get students admitted to high school. i know what it feels like. My arguments were 1) the change into high school has the possibility of breaking through complacency 2) Parents are beggars, not choosers, at this point. It is an opportunity to insist on counseling or tutoring as a condition for acceptance 3) a student can be accepted on probation and offered some support. Usually I was successful, but not always. Calling the rabbi at the eleventh hour is not the solution.

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